Transitioning to Military Boarding School Life – How Parents Can Support Their Teen’s Mental Health and Success  

One of the greatest assets that a military boarding school offers pre-teens and teenagers is also one of the most difficult aspects when they first arrive – structure. Upon moving into the barracks to begin a new middle school or high school experience, new military school cadets are asked to let go of their old expectations and embrace the new lifestyle before them – one of schedules, rules and high expectations.  

In a military school environment, like Missouri Military Academy (MMA), parents and peers no longer set the standard for a young man’s behavior. Instead, self-discipline is taught by teachers, coaches and company leadership advisors, and it is reinforced by the encouragement of cadet leaders and the behavior of their brotherhood.  

Understandably, when cadets first arrive at MMA, the experience can feel like a lot of strangers are just “telling them what to do.” However, with a little time, an open mind and a lot of support, cadets come to understand that the individuals who surround them are their allies and mentors. Eventually, they come to know them as their MMA family – and that is when the magic happens. When cadets embrace their environment and brotherhood, they are able and eager to take everything MMA offers and use it to actively achieve their full potential.  

There are a few things parents and guardians can do to support their cadets through this transitional period.  

1. Be Honest. 

According to MMA Counselor Kevin Wilburn, the most frequent and most upsetting complaint cadets have in their first year at MMA is feeling like their parents lied to them about how long they would be at MMA.  

“Get your grades up and you can come home” is an example of a statement that some parents make to their sons, and according to Wilburn, it is problematic for two reasons:  

  1. It positions MMA as a punishment instead of an opportunity for improvement, which paints their first impression of MMA negatively, making it more difficult to adjust.  
  2. Typically when parents see an improvement in their child’s behavior, grades, etc., they don’t want to pull them out of MMA, because they are seeing how the environment and opportunities are proving beneficial to the cadet. This cause-and-effect is a good thing — It’s the reason why parents choose a military school for their sons. However, it can be disappointing to cadets when they feel like they “earned” their departure, but that departure doesn’t come. It makes them feel like they had a false finish line. They also may not invest themselves as much as they would have – such as in leadership positions or extracurricular activities – because they didn’t think they would be staying.  

“Cadets feel like they’ve been lied to when they are told they will leave at a certain time and don’t. Share the reality of their issues and face it right off the back,” Wilburn says. “Surprising them by making them stay at MMA only delays their adjustment and causes a lack of trust between the parent and cadet – especially if they’ve been through some ups and downs.”  

To avoid this problem, parents should discuss MMA as an opportunity for experiences, growth and self-improvement; not as a punishment with departure being the reward.  

2. Communicate Frequently.  

Yes, it’s true. Teenage boys are not the best communicators – in frequency nor quality of conversation. But that doesn’t mean frequent communication doesn’t have value.  

At MMA, new cadets enter the Academy in the Maroon Phase. During this phase, their contact with parents is limited as they are getting used to their new environment and learning how to stand on their own. When the Maroon Phase is over, however, it is important for parents to communicate with their cadets as often as possible. Skype, call, text, email – whatever methods are most comfortable, regular communication is imperative for maintaining trust and rapport. Young men grow fast, and the boy you send to MMA isn’t necessarily the same boy who is coming home – he will mature and have different ideas, values and goals.  

“Parents will say ‘[my cadet] doesn’t call me,’ but really it is the parents who need to take responsibility with communication. Even if their cadet is frustrated and aren’t answering, at least attempt communication. That effort has value.” Wilburn says. “Parents must continue to grow their relationship with their son, or a lot can be lost.”  

To help maintain communication, Wilburn suggests creating a communication plan to share with your cadet. Build the plan around what is happening at home that coincides with his schedule at the Academy.  

3. Reinforce Structure at Home. 

Cadets who enroll at MMA often do so because they need additional structure and support to achieve academic, social and personal success. There are a few ways parents can replicate the strengths MMA offers while their cadet is at home on break or over the summer that won’t “set them back” when they return to MMA.  

  1. Structure. Know what your cadet is doing when he’s at home, when they are doing it and who they are doing it with. Your cadet may not be used to asking for your permission, and he likely has a newfound sense of independence, but he is still used to accountability – don’t let him slack on that.  
  2. Community. Provide auxiliary support. Get him involved with church, have him spend time with extended family, etc. When he is not at MMA, he will still need a community outside his immediate family to support and encourage him.  
  3. Independence. Remember that your cadet must make, and be held responsible for, his decisions. Your role in his development is to provide a positive environment, encouragement and support. Don’t try to protect him through control or coercion – this will only breed rebellion.  

Parents need to be honest with themselves. [Their cadet] is doing well at MMA because MMA’s methods are working,” Wilburn said. “They need to adjust their home environment and use the same tools MMA is using so their son can continue to be successful.”  

4. Trust the Process 

Every young man will experience ups and downs in life, no matter where or how he grows up. The important thing is what he learns from these experiences.

Parents must keep in mind that MMA's military education model of structure, self-discipline and personal accountability has helped young men take command of their lives and futures for 132 years. As his parents, you are the Academy's strongest and most valued ally in helping your cadet reach his full potential. That being said, it is invaluable that parents trust in MMA's proven processes, and stay and support the course laid out for them. 

"Sending your son away to middle school or high school is not always an easy road, but it is worth it," says MMA President Brigadier General Richard V. Geraci, USA (Ret), who understands the experience as both a military school alumnus and former parent of military school cadet. 

Geraci encourages parents not to lose faith or falter.

"We see the potential in every young man who arrives at Missouri Military Academy, and we realize the sacrifice families make to send their sons here," he says. "More importantly, we see the difference that MMA makes in our cadets' lives."

"It is very frustrating and discouraging to see young men who are thriving and growing here depart MMA prior to graduation, especially when parents tell us they see the positive changes and thank us for what we've done," says Geraci. "The structure, discipline and motivation we offer to young men works, but the short-term success can be short-lived when they depart too soon."

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